Alex Somer’s latest artistry is hauntingly beautiful, a soundtrack that effortlessly glides from track to track telling its own story, yet also fulfils its duty to perfectly match the mood and emotions of the Matt Ross’s latest film, Captain Fantastic. The film focuses on a father played by Viggo Mortensen, who, after tragedy strikes, has to make the decision to move his children back into modern society following a life in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Receiving critical acclaim after premiering at both Sundance and Cannes this year, Captain Fantastic is an example of how film and music elegantly intertwine. It was the collaboration with his partner Jónsi in 2009 (Riceboy Sleeps) that first brought the work of American composer, Alex Somers, to the forefront.
Living in Iceland with Jonsi for ten years now, Somers has since gone on to produce for Jónsi, Julianna Barwick, Sin Fang, and the latest Sigur Rós records, Valtari and Kveikur. With the opportunity to talk to Somers, it was interesting to find out about his own music perspective and the processes that allow him to create such ambient, moving soundscapes.
The Metropolist: It is known that you had a lot of creative freedom working with Matt Ross. Talk me through a specific memorable stage of the project.
Alex Somers: One thing that stands out for is when we recorded the string section. I don’t always use notation, sometimes I will for certain themes or ideas that are set in stone, but for a lot of it I will improvise with the string players. In this case, it was four girls from Amiina (an Icelandic band). It was really fun to just improvise with them all day and make weird sounds using my mouth, hum random melodies, counterpoints, and harmonies.
They’re so sensitive and in tune with the atmosphere that I am hoping to get and immediately understand it. Working with them is always memorable. We work together perhaps twice a year and every time is such a nice reminder (because I always forget) of how fun it is to experiment with them.
TM: Do you have a favourite track on the album because of that?
AS: I am probably too close to it to say. I know there is definitely some stuff that I am really happy with because I worked on it a lot to get the sound to exactly how I wanted it. You can never really judge your own stuff. There are definitely some moments where I think I got a little cheesy.
TM: What is the most rewarding part of being a composer and musician?
AS: The brief moments of feeling really satisfied and proud of what you’re doing. A lot of it is wrapped up self-doubt, the feeling that you’re just making it up as you go, so the proud moments are really fulfilling. Just to have a life where I can build music is something I am so grateful for. Attending the film premiere at Sundance was pretty great. Seeing the film fully mastered and hearing the full audio was the best moment on this project, the moment everything fell into place.
TM: It is known that you prefer using acoustic instruments over electronic sounds. Why is that?
AS: It is a weird path I have taken because I started on the guitar and drums when I was a teenager. Then, when I thought about recreating the sounds in my head and not wanting them to sound like a rock band, I thought keyboards were the answer. I started using a lot of synths which led to using samplers. Discovering samplers and realising that you can record any sound and map it across the keyboard and then play that sound, or just mangle it completely, blew my mind and resonated with me immediately.
It is a kind of synthesis but it’s using acoustic sources. I love the idea of playing sounds, either instruments or field recordings, or anything, and playing it as an instrument. I feel it’s the best of both worlds, you get that strangeness about it but you also get the sound quality of an acoustic recording. It is also about imperfections, synths, of course, can be imperfect, it’s electricity, but there is so much imperfection with putting a microphone on an instrument; having someone play and hearing the chair squeak fro example. I really like that kind of stuff.
TM: Have all your music projects been as easy going and organically created as this one?
AS: Definitely not, no way. Every project is really different. Working with Matt was definitely the most laid back film scoring project I have ever done because we had ten months or so, which is very long, a lot longer than normal. Typically, you might have one or two months, the deadline is a lot tighter.
The composer normally comes in a lot later and has less time but, fortunately, Matt Ross was given a lot more freedom on his end and as far as the editing goes, they kept tweaking it, capping it, and redoing it so that gave me a lot more time to try things out. Sometimes the final piece would be the 6th alternate version I wrote. I just kept changing it, I think we exhausted pretty much everything we could try in terms of the music, at least.
TM: Did that freedom, in a sense, make it one of your best projects so far?
AS: I hadn’t actually thought about it, but maybe. I think with making music and anything creative, you never know what’s going to be an advantage. Some people might have ten months and spiral out of control, and not enjoy the process. Of course, this project was on and off, I wasn’t writing and recording for ten moths solid. I mean the Beatles made their first album in one day (well, they wrote the songs beforehand) but proves great things can happen really spontaneously, too.
TM: Explain the visuals and art in connection with the soundtrack; did you work with Icelandic artist, Inga Birgisdottir, or was it something she created separately after listening?
AS: We totally did it together, but she’s amazing. She drew all of the artwork in the end, that’s totally her. As soon as I found out they wanted to make a soundtrack album, I just asked her if she’d be up for doing it. That was actually a crazy deadline.
We had four days or something. That was more stressful than the music stuff because I really wanted it to be great. We both drew loads of stuff and first I thought it would be done by the two of us, but her drawings were so good and really cohesive and fitted everything so well.
So she ended up doing the drawing and I helped with some design and layout, it’s my handwriting all over the album. All of her artwork and videos are super cool and she’s so nice. I really care about those details. Nobody really buys music anymore so if you’re gonna put something out there it should be a nice objective.
TM: Did you ever envision being a successful film composer when you were younger or was it something that naturally developed through your love for ambient music?
AS: I don’t think I am a successful composer, I don’t know. I have always wanted to do something with music but never knew what. I am always trying to figure out if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage for myself. At eighteen, I went to music college and within the music bubble I was interested in so much stuff I just ended up studying film scoring, which is funny that I am actually doing that now.
I also studied music therapy cos I was just curious and interested. I have always wanted to follow the music path but I never imagined where it would lead me or what exactly I’d be doing. I think my interest is to be involved with all different music projects. I wouldn’t want to be just writing film scores for ten years. My dream is to have all these different plates spinning and do one or two film scores a year with interesting directors, and also try and produce a band or two and mix a few records.
Each project gives you a different satisfaction. Some projects become lonely and some are really social, and sometimes, you’re able to play with sounds and other times you’re just writing on your own. I would like to keep them all going.
TM: What is you view of the current music landscape at the moment and how do you think composing film scores fits into that?
AS: I wonder that. I think it’s probably changed, too, because some people my age are getting into it and writing music for film and T.V. I don’t know how normal that is or what it was like before or whether directors are starting to seek out people who make alternative music who aren’t the classic, orchestral film composers. I think it’s a good thing.
It is really sad about the music industry not being able to sustain itself. I don’t actually know a lot about it, but it sucks to see friends who make music but not able to make a living from it. I am sure it will balance itself out in the long run cos it doesn’t make any sense that something as amazing as the internet would put musicians out of work.
It’s an imbalance and, hopefully, it will fix itself. I personally really enjoy film scoring and I think a lot of people who have similar taste to me with sound are really psyched to do it and that’s really good for film.
TM: Any new projects on the horizon?
I am working a lot these days. I am currently working with a filmmaker called Bill Morrison. We’re getting close to finishing his new film.
TM: Sounds intriguing. Can you give any more details?
AS: I can tell you a little something. It is really cool. It’s a silent film documentary and it’s all created from these found film reels that were lost and discovered in Northern Canada close to the Arctic Circle. They were basically buried underground in an old swimming pool that became a hockey rink and some people living in the town discovered them by accident. They took a match to a small sample to see how old it was because really old film is highly combustible and it went up in flames. So, yeah, they discovered all these old films and Bill has sort of collaged them to form a narrative. It is a beautiful documentary.